Upside down, spine facing the ground, tucked up under my arm, front-side facing my armpit.
It took some work, but I carried Billy Graham with me every day for two weeks, just like that. When we sat at the local coffee shop, I kept him face-down on the pallet-wood table. When we went through airport security, I did my best to cram him and hide him down into my carry-on. When we sat on the park bench, I hid him with a combination of poor posture, flat palms and shortened forearms.
By now, of course, the metaphor has thinned out and you’ve realized we’re talking about a book authored by Billy Graham. I have not been carrying around a 97-year-old evangelist, with his spine precariously hovering over the ground and his wizened face shoved in my armpit, to-and-from my favorite spots. Rather, I’m speaking of Graham’s 1988 re-release of his “The Holy Spirit: Activating God’s Power in Your Life.” In it, the nation’s most famous preacher gives his best shot at explaining the third member of the Holy Trinity, a task that has flummoxed theologians of diverse belief backgrounds since the day — the moment — of Pentecost.
The book was given to me by my father — a retired minister with ample time to catch up on all the reading he missed while shepherding flocks of United Methodists along the path of sanctification. Twenty-five years of ministering eats up a lot of time that could otherwise be spent reading, as you may well imagine. Somehow, for some reason, this particular Graham title slid into the top-quadrant of his book pile. And after he read through it, he gave it to me and requested, specifically, that I read it as well.
Now, I couldn’t begin to tell you why he would put such a burden on me. I’m not retired and, therefore, I am ignorant of the effects of retirement upon the human body. Perhaps being a Southern-born preacher who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, my father has a kinship with Graham to which I am, unfortunately, unable to relate.
Also unfortunately, I love my father deeply and have more-or-less followed his instruction during the years between 1984 and 1992, then again between 2002 and the present day. (Stop judging, everyone has a gap.) Long story short, here I was with a Billy Graham book on top of MY reading pile.
In the interest of ideological and theological disclosure, I have been a United Methodist, officially, since 1992. I remember very distinctly telling my parents that I was ready to make a personal confession of faith. (It’s highly likely that I said it in just that way, as I was a terribly precocious child.) I remember him explaining the fine print of this deal through Scripture. Then, three head sprinkles later, I was a Christian. More than that, a United Methodist Christian. (Didn’t know it at the time but, what with the sprinkling and all, there’s a hell of a lot of difference between a United Methodist Christian and, say, a Church of Christ Christian. In the latter, there‘s a minimum-standard water usage requirement.)
Today, I’m still a United Methodist, more-or-less in lockstep doctrinally with the church. In fact, not to go all Troy McClure on you, but you may remember me from such United Methodist commercials as this one, or this one. (I can usually be identified in the wild as “man with coffee.”)
Anyway, back to the spine-down, arm-pit thing. Why the cloak and dagger routine on Billy Graham? Why the fuss and embarassment over a book written by “America’s Preacher”?
For starters, even old-school Christians admit that Billy Graham is an anachronism. I’d say he’s old-fashioned, but he’s also a militant teetotaler, and he’d probably chaff at the entendre. Can someone like myself — someone who ascribes to the “open doors, open hearts, open minds” mantra of my beloved UMC, someone who is a self-described progressive Christian, someone who believes not in the inerrancy of Scripture, someone less Solo Scriptura and more Wesleyan Quadrilateral, someone who believes that love is love is love, someone who believes that people are born with sexual orientations and gender identity experiences that are foreign to my personal experience but are no less genuine than my own, someone who believes that Black Lives Matter and healthcare is a basic human right and that love is the greatest commandment — truly identify and connect with an author like Graham?
The short answer is yes, because the Holy Spirit is indeed living among us. The Spirit sees no boundary fixed by age, or anachronistic thought, or…perhaps even the self-righteous egotism of a certain coffee-loving, progressive Christian. (Not that, you know, the latter applies to any particular person…though I am suddenly struggling to avert my gaze from the mirror in the corner of my office.)
Indeed, truth can be mined from unexpected places. Take this excerpt for example, from page 146 of the book:
“Personally, I find it helpful to begin each day by silently committing that day into God’s hands. I thank Him that I belong to Him…I ask Him to take my life that day and use it for His glory. I ask Him to cleanse me from anything that would hinder His work in my life. And then I step out in faith, knowing that His Holy Spirit is filling me continually as I trust in Him and obey His word. Sometimes during the day I may not be aware of His presence; sometimes I am. But at the end of the day, I can look back and thank Him, because I see His hand at work.”
That’s…good stuff. Really. You could read that passage aloud in your local, inner-city homeless church or in Kim Davis’s church…either way, you’d get an “amen.” Yours truly is duly chastened, for I recognize the need to make a similar commitment each day and realize that on most days I have not.
How about another excerpt? Page 240…
“Certainly above all, love should be the outstanding mark among believers in every local congregation.”
Amen to that, as well.
One more? Here’s page 229:
“It is in the midst of difficulties and hardships that we especially need the fruit of the Spirit, and it is in such times that God may especially work through us to touch other people for Christ.”
Spot on. Indeed, wise words for all Christians to hear.
But — and there is a but — Billy Graham is still an anachronism. And it’s not a quaint type of anachronism, like that stepfather of yours who screws up his face when someone mentions Jane Fonda or Adlai Stevenson. Rather, it’s a rigid ideology that could very well startle a fledgling Christian away from fully embracing the faith. Sometimes, spreading the Gospel is like trying to woo a timid squirrel with acorns. One unforeseen move can reset everything. And indeed, in between his acorns of truth, Graham has jammed some herky-jerky, conversation-resetting moves.
First, nearly every anecdote in the book — stories from colleagues, quotes from peers, wisdom from spiritual forebears — comes from men. I counted only one quote from a female peer across the entire work. That said, he did include this delightful tale about two women:
“A young wife and mother whose husband had become unfaithful and left her to live with another woman was bitter and full of resentment. However, as she began to think about the love of Christ for us, she found a new love growing in her for others — including the woman who had taken her husband. At Christmas time, she sent the other woman one red rose with a note: ‘Because of Christ’s love for me and through me, I can love you!’”
Now, I’m not doubting the transformative power of love, nor the inexhaustible well-spring of forgiveness, strength and wisdom that is Christ Jesus. But I’m a practical, pragmatic man. And if I happened to be sitting face-to-face with anyone who had encountered a betrayal such as the one Graham describes…I would not tell this story under any circumstance. Uncoiling the tangled ball of hurt feelings resulting from infidility could take a lifetime — and if it does, fine. Good. Go at your pace. And important though it is to uncoil that ball, part of the reconciliation need not involve sending flowers and a love note to the person who obliterated your marriage. The flabbergasting tone-deafness of that story…I mean, it’s astounding, is it not? Can you believe what you just read? I could not. I had to go outside for a walk.
Beyond that anecdote in particular…it is true that, in 1988, we were not as actively concerned about gender equality and gender neutrality as we are today. But, still…nearly 300 pages of material and only one female peer cited? That ratio is outside the norm, even in the context of the times.
There’s also this curious passage:
“The command to love is not an option; we are to love whether we feel like it or not. Indeed, we may say that love for others is the first sign that we have been born again and that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives.”
Those two sentences are dripping with Calvinism — which, in itself, isn’t a bad thing. Yes, love is a commandment. Yes, love very well may be the first sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives. But, the implication here is that love and the Spirit are in a zero-sum relationship. Either you have the Spirit and are therefore capable of loving others…or not.
I know some pretty loving folks who also happen to be of a faith background different than myself…and still others with no faith background whatsoever. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this short declaration, but you could argue that the message here is: No act of love can exist unless instigated by a Christian. Whether that’s the intended message or not, yours truly doesn’t believe in it. For whatever that’s worth to you.
Also, while we’re here, is it really a sign of the Spirit that you love “whether you feel like it or not”? When you add the qualifier “whether you feel like it or not,” are you not describing a chore? I mean, I’ll put the trash on the curb whether I feel like it or not…but I might cuss a little while I’m doing it.
There are many more examples of this radical old-fashionedism I can cite for you. Some of them relate to Graham’s belief in the inerrancy of Scripture:
“For example, [Christ] accepted as fact…the stories of Jonah and the fish, Noah and the ark, and the creation of Adam and Eve. If these stories had not been literally true, He surely would have told us.”
You do mean, of course, the same Christ who communicated most of his most foundational truths via parables? Right?
And, well, here’s probably the most cringe-worthy sentence in the whole book…page 246:
“The greatest psychiatric therapy in the world is appropriating what Jesus promised, ‘I will give you rest.’”
False. The greatest psychiatric therapy in the world is psychiatric therapy. Period.
Anyway, what am I getting at here? I read this book expecting it to be lousy. I didn’t expect my faith to grow as a result of the oversimplified, old-fashioned meanderings of a man who once shared a stage with Dick Nixon in a stunning affront to the seperation of church and state…the man who also fathered this guy. But I was wrong.
First, my assumptions were terrifically egotistical. Billy Graham may not write as eloquently as Henri Nouwen or Parker Palmer, but that doesn’t mean he has no truth to speak. Hiding a work of Christian literature out of embarassment that my peers would think I am not sufficiently enlightened…that’s a reflection of my weakness, not Billy Graham’s. And, come to think of it, it is just like my father to give me a book like this, assuming I would immediately poo-poo it in favor of something more academic and, as a result, miss the nuggets of truth buried within.
Second, if Balaam’s Donkey has taught us anything, it’s that God can speak and has spoken truth through pretty much anything and everything. Trusting that the Holy Spirit will reveal itself through any and every means at its disposal is one of the things you believe when you believe in the Holy Spirit.
Third, I realize now more than ever that Christianity has and will continue to evolve as the church evolves. Heck, Christians used to burn heretics at the stake, don’t you know? (Looking at you John Calvin.) “Crusades” had a wholly different meaning a few hundred years before Billy Graham came on the scene. And yes, the undercurrents of bigotry and self-righteousness still exist and still tug at us, occasionally pulling us under the surface. After all, the church is a divine institution run by inherently un-divine human beings.
But these days there are many, many Christians working actively to make their congregations, small groups and life groups as inclusive as possible to folks from all backgrounds, ethnicities, genders and identifications. There are countless churches on the front lines of ministry to neglected communities across the world. It is impossible provide an accurate tally of the meals, gallons of water, homes, beds, medicines, mosquito nets, etc., provided to needy people by faithful Christians the world-over. Because the greatest commandment is love. Because we have a greater understanding now, perhaps than ever before, that the grace and love of God shows no partiality, knows no labels or borders.
So, if nothing else, Billy Graham has reminded me that though we have evolved, evolution by its nature has no end. I’m sure that from his first crusade in 1947, through the writing of this book, to the present day, Billy Graham himself has witnessed a personal evolution of his own. And there’s no shame in that.